BELFAST -- On an icy, black Sunday night, police officers brought terrible news to the rural idyll of Kevin McMullan's home: A relative had just been killed in a car crash, they said. It was a lie, and it launched one of the world's biggest bank robberies.
Once inside, the phony officers put a gun to McMullan's head, tied him up, blindfolded his wife, and then took her away at gunpoint in her own car into the forest.
They told McMullan, a senior executive at Northern Bank in his mid-30s, that he must get the gang into the bank's major cash vault the next night. If he or another abducted bank official, Chris Ward, refused to help or raised any alarm, their families would be put to death.
Police said yesterday that the gang got away with more than 22 million pounds, or about $42 million, more than originally estimated. The 45-member detective task force admitted it would be hard to track down a gang that left no apparent forensic evidence during its meticulously planned heist.
Police didn't learn of the crime until after 11 p.m. Monday, three hours after surveillance cameras recorded the gunmen's cash-packed van disappearing down Belfast's major highway. McMullan's wife, free of her blindfold but in soaking wet sneakers and suffering hypothermia in near-freezing temperatures, emerged from the forest to raise the alarm at a farmhouse.
About the same time, on the edge of west Belfast, gang members released the mother, father, brother, and brother's girlfriend of Ward, 23.
"This was a carefully planned operation by professional criminals who obviously had done their homework," Detective Superintendent Andy Sproule said.
Sproule said the gang took extensive precautions against leaving traces of their identities at either victim's house or the bank. "We have a long way to go before we have recovered the money or arrested the individuals," he said.
The gang remained masked and gloved and wore workmen's overalls, which Northern Ireland paramilitary groups regularly wear on operations and then burn afterward. Police said they suspect the robbers also trimmed their hair short to reduce the chance of dropped strands. The gunmen burned McMullan's car to destroy DNA and other forensic traces.
Both McMullan and Ward are key holders who work in Northern Bank's confidential underground vault, which stores cash from businesses and supplies the bank's 95 branches and hundreds of automated teller machines. The vault received exceptional volumes of cash Monday, reflecting the bustling buildup to Christmas.
The gang let both executives go to work about noon Monday and then ordered one of them -- the police won't say who -- to carry out a trial run about 90 minutes after the bank closed. The executive carried a gym bag containing more than $2 million to a man disguised in a cap and scarf, then went back inside to await orders.
Once the gang decided police hadn't been alerted, a member drove a large white van equipped with a lifting device to the bank's high-security vehicle entrance on a quiet side street. Inside, McMullan and Ward triggered codes that opened an outer steel door and then a second internal door.
Sproule said no member of the gang went inside the bank, but remained at the other end of a conveyor belt as Northern Bank's own officials below cleared out the vault, one plastic container of cash at a time, enough bundles to stand in a stack 30 stories high.
The fully loaded van departed and returned about an hour later for a second load.
Despite the smooth operation, money-laundering specialists said the gang's planning had let them down, predicting the thieves will have a hard time using the currency: Almost all the notes were produced by Northern Ireland banks.
Sproule said more than $24.5 million worth were new notes bearing Northern Bank's own design and destined for ATMs, while most of the rest were used notes printed by Northern and three other local banks. Such notes, though denominated as British pounds, aren't readily accepted in other parts of the United Kingdom or other countries.
Jeffrey Robinson, author of the book "The Money Launderer," said the gang took too much cash, and of too conspicuous a design, to spend or even hide.
"They obviously did not count on there being so much money, and Northern Irish notes," Robinson said. "The money is fundamentally useless. I suspect they know that by now."